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What did Miguel Andújar do at the plate to make 2018 so special?

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Statcast has some insight about how Andújar could recapture his old Rookie of the Year runner-up magic.

MLB: New York Yankees at Texas Rangers Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

We spend a lot of time talking about guys that either chronically or acutely underperform their more granular metrics. Think of someone like Michael Pineda, who on pure stuff should have been the steal of the century for the Yankees, but was never able to put that stuff into anything sustainable — at least not when he wasn’t slathering pine tar on his neck.

Then there are the players who are consistently better than the sum of their parts. They may not hit the ball particularly hard, or walk that much, but over the course of 162 games are able to produce more runs than we think they should. You’ve read the headline so I’m sure you know Miguel Andújar is one of those players — in his Rookie of the Year runner-up season, he overperformed his expected wOBA by more than 40 points.

However, that same season, Andújar matched perfectly his xwOBAcon, or, how we expected him to perform when putting the ball in play. Andújar is a throwback — he doesn’t strike out that much, doesn’t walk that much, and ends most plate appearances with a ball in play. In fact, of the 215 players that recorded at least 400 PAs in 2018, Miggy finished in the 90th percentile of plate appearances with a batted ball event:

This means that Andújar is always going to be heavily reliant on BABIP to have a good season. He just doesn’t get on base without the benefit of a hit enough to have any BABIP resiliency, and that’s borne out, again, by looking at his strong 2018:

So, how does a player maintain a high BABIP? Five years or so ago, we might have shrugged it off and declared BABIP more or less a function of luck, but Statcast has helped us to understand that certain players can influence their BABIP, through consistent hard contact or speed.

A crushingly slow player, like newest Dodger Albert Pujols, is going to always run a lower BABIP regardless of his contact quality, because he is so slow that it’s easy to turn any ball in the infield — or even the shallow outfield — into an out. A player who hits the ball hard most of the time, like DJ LeMahieu, can run a higher BABIP with regularity, because every batted ball is 95 miles per hour, and that’s hard for fielders to corral.

In 2018, Andújar had above-average speed, but that wasn’t really the source of his batted ball success. He didn’t hit the ball at DJ-level hard contact either. So, what was it, and did it show up in his first week back in 2021?

What perhaps drove more contact success, and thus more overall value, was an above-average sweet spot percentage. Sweet spot, as detailed by Tom Tango last week, is essentially what rate of batted balls come off the bat between 8 and 32 degrees, the angles where balls are high enough off the ground to avoid being fielded cleanly, but not too high as to become easy flyouts.

Not only did Andújar produce sweet spots at about a full standard deviation above the median in 2018, his launch angle histogram tells us exactly the kind of batted ball he was so adept at producing:

Although Miggy doesn’t really hit the ball that hard, such a concentration of 10-14 or so degrees produces a lot of classic singles, the ones that loop solidly into the outfield. If those balls land between fielders, they roll to the wall — hence, Miggy Two-Bags. This particularly narrow band of launch angles drives so much of Andújar’s batted ball “luck,” and perhaps makes his BABIP more sustainable than pure exit velo might otherwise.

So, that’s how he did it in 2018. The question is, has he done it in 2021?

Early results — read, one week of results — say no. He’s actually producing batted ball events at virtually the same rate as he did in 2018, 80 percent, but that launch angle magic has decreased. Instead of 36 percent of his batted balls falling between 8-32 degrees, just three of 22, or 14 percent, have in 2021. Fortunately, in his best game of the year so far, Tuesday’s win over Texas, both of his singles sat in the sweet spot, and corresponded to xBAs of .950 and .780. Neither one was hit that hard relative to the league, but both had just the right amount of loft to reach the grass and get Miggy aboard.

Now, it’s only one week. Even dealing with the most granular batted ball data, we need more information on Andújar, and the only way we get more is if he keeps playing. He’s an aggressive hitter by nature, and that aggression has probably been ratcheted up by his callup at a time when his team needs runs. Still, that narrow band of launch angles is the thing to watch for in his plate appearances. If he’s sitting around 12 degrees, we should see 2018 Miggy again. If not, he’s going to have to find some other way to be productive at the plate.